Russia: The Citizen Poet

Living Souls

by Dmitry Bykov, translated from the Russian by Cathy Porter
London: Alma, 439 pp., $14.95 (paper)
Mikhail Metzel/AP Images
Dmitry Bykov receiving the Big Book Award for his biography of Boris Pasternak at the Central House of Writers, Moscow, November 2006

Over the past few years, Dmitry Bykov’s creative flow has been noisily saturating his Russian audience with literary allusions, giving new life to old books. Now in his mid-forties, Bykov has published five novels and three lengthy biographies,1 as well as numerous collections of short stories, essays, and verse. A graduate of Moscow University’s Journalism Faculty, he regards journalism as more important than writing books.2 Hardly a day passes without at least one article, broadcast, or blog in which Bykov finds some ingenious connection between a political event and a line of poetry or a character from a novel; he comments on everything from the St. Petersburg Economic Forum to the punk protest group Pussy Riot.3

Bykov’s latest talk show, News in the Classics, airs live three times a week on the radio station Kommersant FM. Everything that happens has a parallel in literature, Bykov maintains. The aim of the show is “to help Russia to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.” So far, as he sees it, Russian history has proved cyclical, and the cycle is tragic.

Following the example of his mother, Natalya Bykova, a renowned teacher of Russian language and literature, Bykov also finds time to teach in high school. The classroom, he says, is the only place where he feels truly useful, as he tries to explain to adolescents (“wild beasts”) “why literature is necessary, and what an author had in mind when he wrote one thing instead of another.”4 In every setting—TV studio, lecture hall, or political street protest—he communicates an infectious bonhomie. Through YouTube, the curly-haired, mustachioed Bykov, round and rumpled in T-shirt and combat jacket, is now in front of a virtual classroom packed with many thousands of attentive listeners, whose responses to his latest impromptu aphorisms on the relations between politics, history, and literature hang below on never-ending comment threads.

The novel Living Souls is at once a futuristic geopolitical fantasy and a panoramic satire of post-Soviet life. It is Bykov’s first work to appear in English. Its Russian title is ZhD, Cyrillic initials with numerous possible significations, among them the Russian word for “Jews,” zhidy. Hyped by its Russian publisher as “the most politically incorrect book of the new millennium,” it depicts the final struggles in a civil war between Varangians (who call themselves “Russians”) and Khazars, rival colonial powers with antipathetic cultural norms.5 Within Bykov’s imaginative scheme, these two “virus races” have been contesting Russian territory since the ninth century, at the expense of the ever-passive native population, who remain pagan and prehistoric, living a hidden vagrant life, moving in circles, speaking their own riddling poetic language. The West, having discovered a new form of energy,…

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